Nikola Jokic is doing it again. The two-time reigning MVP is battling for the top spot in both fantasy basketball and NBA impact.
Here’s the question: how?
In writing this article, I went back through my history of analysis of Jokic. He is a posterchild for a player that showed up as a superstar in the analytics world, particularly the impact-based stats like our Real Plus Minus (RPM), long before he became a household name or started earning league honors.
This resulted in some analysis that is fascinating in hindsight, and also some arguments that history has proven to be correct. One such exchange came in Aug. 2018, when I wrote an article on “Super Teams” in the NBA. By the methods I used, the Nuggets were Super in large part because I considered Jokic to already be a superstar. My Twitter followers did not necessarily agree, which led to this exchange:
Criticism 1: “Do you find it telling though that Jokic scores much higher than players objectively better than him? For instance, KAT (Karl-Anthony Towns) scores 1 point while Melo (Carmelo Anthony) scores 2? This has to invalidate a scoring system, no?”
My response: “Not really… Jokic is outstanding and his team plays way better with him. Has reasonable argument as best center in NBA.”
Criticism 2: “If you think that Jokic is as good as (Joel) Embiid, you’re inflating stats. Again, if your measurement says that Jokic is a bigger “star” your measurement is flawed.”
My response: “Not sure I agree. Jokic is an incredible offensive center, especially with his combo of passing and scoring ability. Centers like that traditionally have huge impact, and he’s been the same.”
I want to start with that last… Jokic is able to maintain his spot at the top of fantasy and NBA impact scales because of his unique set of skills on offense that we may have never seen in a single player before. And it combines two high-impact trends, both of which that are heightened when found in big men: elite playmaking and elite shooting.
In NBA history, there have been few true big men capable of averaging six or more assists per game for a full season. Those that have almost universally measure out with larger than expected offensive impact. From Wilt Chamberlain in his distributing seasons, to Bill Walton, to Kevin Garnett to Draymond Green, big men that can create team offense off the pass are rare and valuable.
The ability to run a team’s offense through their pivot creates mismatches that opposing defenses often aren’t prepared for. It causes opposing big men, typically the lynchpin of team defense approaches, to come away from the rim and opens up lanes of attack and space for the rest of the offense to get easy looks without having to create them off the dribble. This is ultra valuable, and had positive impacts on the teammates of the above-listed big men from Jerry West to Stephen Curry.
Jokic is arguably the greatest passing center in NBA history. According to Second Spectrum, Jokic leads every player in the NBA in passes over the past three seasons (including this one) by a lot, with 15,236 total passes that are almost four thousand more to the group of point guards in the second-through-fourth slots (Luka Doncic 11,510, Chris Paul 11,499 and Russell Westbrook 11,161).
His 97.1 completion percentage on those passes is higher than any of the three point guards on that list, and his 1.9 turnover percentage on passes is lower. And it’s excellent for Jokic’s assists, making him perennially among the NBA leaders in assists from a center position that just doesn’t deliver to anywhere near that level in that category.
Jokic pairs that unique-in-history big man passing ability with an almost just-as-unique shooting touch that is just as valuable. Dirk Nowitzki was a posterchild of the big man spacing impact in the 2000s. At 7-feet tall, Nowitzki was one of the best shooters in the NBA, and he again broke down opposing defenses by forcing putative defensive anchor big men to come out of the paint.
In addition, Nowitzki was able to create a warping of opposing defenses by drawing help attention and double-teams, also away from the rim, that made it easier for his teammates to attack the imbalanced unit.
Jokic has that type of Nowitzki-like shot making ability, and he’s also able to create his own looks off the dribble or perimeter-post. During the past three seasons, Jokic is shooting an outstanding 52.6% from the field from 16-feet to the 3-point line, and over 36% from behind the arc.
In other words, Jokic is converting the now frowned-upon long midrange jumper at an efficiency that rivals what most of the league can generate from the more coveted locations near the rim and behind the arc. To put it in perspective, arguably the greatest frontcourt shot maker of this generation, Kevin Durant, is in the same neighborhood with a 54.2 FG% from 16 feet to the 3-point line and 40.0% from behind the arc during that span.
And, when you pair that historic passing with the historic shooting from a big man, we see how Jokic is making history. According to Second Spectrum Jokic’s passes lead to incredibly positive results for the Nuggets, a whopping 1.23 points per possession that is among the best in the league. And his passing ability makes his shooting even more effective, helping Jokic generate an eye-popping 1.43 points per possession when he shoots.
Put it together, and it’s understandable that Jokic led the entire NBA in Real Plus Minus last season, and is in the top-3 again this season. And it translates to his box score stats (read fantasy basketball impact) as well, with Jokic leading the league in fantasy points scored (by a lot) in each of the last two seasons and trailing only Doncic thus far this season.
Nikola Jokic isn’t all that athletic, doesn’t play above the rim, and isn’t known for his defense. But, he’s arguably the most offensively skilled big man that the game has ever seen, with a unique combination of court vision, passing ability, shot-making and team-offense creating that stands apart.
And that makes him a favorite to lead the NBA in fantasy points as a staple in the MVP conversation for the foreseeable future.